News broke Thursday that the Cleveland Browns are acquiring quarterback Brock Osweiler from the Houston Texans, taking his $16 million salary off Houston's books and getting a second-round pick in return. But sources told ESPN's Pat McManamon that Cleveland isn't looking for Osweiler to be its new quarterback; the Browns are looking to deal the 26-year-old QB - which strikes us as a very Paul DePodesta move.
With that in mind, here's a look at the Browns chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta, originally published in April 2016.
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's April 25 NFL Draft Issue. Subscribe today!
NFL SCOUTING REPORT
Name: Paul DePodesta
Height/weight: 5-foot-9, 165 pounds
Hometown: Alexandria, Virginia
College: Harvard, 1995 (economics, cum laude)
Previous position: VP of player development and amateur scouting, New York Mets
Football experience: 1992-94 Harvard, wide receiver; 1995 Baltimore Stallions of the Canadian Football League, unpaid intern, duties included operating T-shirt cannon
Bench: 225 lbs. @ < 0 reps
Evaluated by: More than a dozen analytics experts from across the sports landscape
BROWNS' NEW CHIEF strategy officer is most intriguing NFL prospect of the last decade. Bob Bowman, MLB president of business and media, called DePodesta hire "most interesting sports story of 2016." Elite-level thinker spent 20 years as leading mind behind sabermetrics revolution in baseball made famous by best-selling book and movie Moneyball, based on his then-radical approach with Oakland Athletics. In January, with zero football experience, hired by Cleveland to oversee progressive, analytics-first overhaul of its front office, roster, culture. Will face major obstacles while attempting to challenge decades-old NFL scouting, drafting, team-building and performance models. At stake: fate of franchise, future of analytics in football and DePodesta's legacy. "Paul had a big impact on the way the entire baseball industry operated," states Ben Baumer, a statistical analyst with Mets from 2004 to 2012. "This is a chance for Paul to do it all over again in a different sport. We all want to know: Is it all going to translate, can Paul get lightning to strike twice?"
FEEDBACK FROM FIELD
"BRILLIANT BUT NOT condescending." ... "Reticent but not socially aloof." ... "Smarter than advertised." ... "Process-oriented to the end, not swayed by wins, losses or emotions." ... "Focused on getting it right as opposed to getting credit -- which is why he can't survive most front offices." ... "Not a great communicator." ... "I thought he was a genius until he agreed to work for the Browns."
BASIS OF WHAT DePodesta and Browns are attempting not new. Majority of NFL teams begrudgingly use analytics without fully embracing concept. Besides scouting and drafting, teams employ analytics to weigh trades, allot practice time, call plays (example: evolving mindset regarding fourth downs) and manage clock. What will differentiate DePodesta and Cleveland is extent to which Browns use data science to influence decision-making. DePodesta would like decisions to be informed by 60 percent data, 40 percent scouting. Present-day NFL is more 70 percent scouting and 30 percent data. DePodesta won't just ponder scouts' performance but question their very existence. Will likewise flip burden of proof on all football processes, models and systems. Objective data regarding, say, a player's size and his performance metrics -- example: Defensive ends must have arm length of at least 33∏ inches -- will dictate decision-making. Football staff will then have to produce overwhelming subjective argument to overrule or disprove analytics. "It's usually the other way around," states member of AFC team's analytics staff. "I'm jealous, to be honest. I was hoping we'd be the first to do this, but the Browns are beating everyone to the punch. Only question is how much of a tie-yourself-to-the-mast mentality will they have, and for how long?"
SECURING FUTURE OF analytics in football will require massive amounts of talent, patience and intellectual ingenuity from franchise notoriously devoid of all three. At MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in March, unilateral fear existed inside analytics community that systemic ineptitude of Browns franchise will be too substantial for even DePodesta to repair. Failure would damage legacy of beloved industry pioneer and set field of sports data science back decades. "If you love analytics and want it to grow and succeed in the NFL, then you know Cleveland is a nightmare scenario," states NFL executive with 20 years of experience in analytics. "Cleveland is a crazy, terrible place for this to be tested in football."
RECRUITED TO HARVARD in 1991 as shortstop, center fielder, pitcher. Played baseball for Crimson, one year. Injury to throwing shoulder forced him to quit baseball and switch to football, first love since fifth grade, according to associates. "Always been a football guy, deep down," confirms longtime Harvard coach Tim Murphy. Majored in economics with emphasis in psychology. Was once concerned about being labeled "dumb jock" at Harvard. To combat that image, wore button-down shirts, khakis and glasses (instead of contacts) in classroom. Worry about image unfounded. Despite running precise pass routes that former Harvard teammates state could have been measured with protractor, DePodesta failed to record single receiving stat in entirety of Crimson football career. "I got into baseball, and everyone just started calling me a geek, like, 'There's the nerd from Harvard,'" DePodesta stated at Sloan. "Then it took 20 years of working in baseball and me actually leaving and going to football for people to say, 'He's the baseball guy.' So maybe at some point I'll be known as a football guy too."
AFTER CFL INTERNSHIP, started front office career with Indians in 1996; by the next year was advance scout. Using data, began to question game's processes and implicit assumptions about everything, especially inherent, yet undetected, flaws in decision-making. (Example: Scouts give excessive weight to a player's most recent performance in predicting future performance.) November 1998, age 25, hired away from Indians by Oakland GM Billy Beane. Despite minuscule payroll, analytic approach lifted A's to four straight playoffs (but no championships) while inspiring Moneyball book and movie. Played by Jonah Hill in movie. Beyond obvious physical differences, character seemed to be accurate portrayal: contrarian, painfully awkward at times, process-oriented and unswayed by emotion or outcome on field. "Paul's the Christopher Columbus of analytics," states Astros director of decision sciences Sig Mejdal. "Others may have come and gone before him. But it was his arrival that led to a permanent industry change."
FEBRUARY 2004, NAMED GM of Los Angeles Dodgers. After initial success, struggled with role as public face of club, communication with media and human element. Interpersonal skills exposed as notch or two below elite. Derided as "Google Boy" by Los Angeles Times. 2005 season: 71 -- 91. October same year: fired. Spent four seasons with Padres in baseball operations, final two as executive VP. Joined Mets' front office, 2010, run by GM Sandy Alderson, Harvard Law School graduate and sabermetrics acolyte. DePodesta named VP of player development and amateur scouting. Commuted from family residence outside San Diego. Revamped processes behind Mets' approach to scouting, drafting, development, trades and free agency. Four straight losing seasons to start. October 2015, Mets win first pennant in 15 years. Lose to Royals in World Series.
PSYCH PORTRAIT, PART I
QUESTION MOST HEARD while preparing DePodesta report: Why now? Why leave chance at World Series for long shot with Browns? Opinion of associates familiar with Mets organization is that DePodesta was as far back as fourth in line for eventual GM job. Family and home remain in San Diego. GM job with Mets would require move to New York. (Browns allowing DePodesta to cross-country commute.) Also, analytics community feels that while sabermetrics pioneers such as Bill James and DePodesta transformed baseball, they never truly conquered it. "In the last 10 years, you'd be hard-pressed to come up with something new or original that Bill or Paul contributed to the field," states a former MLB analytics researcher. According to DePodesta, Browns offered chance to explore uncharted territory, "to try something different and take on unique challenge in the NFL."
PSYCH PORTRAIT, PART II
TO USE INDUSTRY colloquialisms: If DePodesta becomes first stat nerd to master NFL, he will forever be known as Obi-Wan Kenobi of analytics. No denying ego played some role in jump to NFL. In Oakland, DePodesta's superior mind was driving force behind team's success. Public credit and notoriety all went to Beane. DePodesta's high-profile flameout with Dodgers compounded by way it coincided with Beane disciple Theo Epstein emerging as sabermetrics savior in Boston. Success in NFL would instantly leapfrog DePodesta over intellectual contemporaries in baseball.
IMPENDING TECHNOLOGICAL REVOLUTION
NOT A COINCIDENCE DePodesta jumped to NFL just as league announced release of RFID (radio frequency identification) signals data collected in stadiums since 2014. Chips embedded in shoulder pads track real-time player position, movement and speed. Original massive amount of precise, insightful player performance data seen as NFL's Moneyball moment. Ben Alamar, ESPN director of sports analytics, classifies new RFID data set as "transformational." Says it "will wipe out all current limitations of NFL analytics and dramatically change the football world as we know it." Example: Teams will know instantly whether quarterback is throwing to most open receiver, pass rusher coming off knee surgery is moving at pre-injury speed or opponent alters position of safety by an inch in any direction on third downs. Use of RFID chips by NCAA would eventually make NFL combine obsolete. Only variable, Alamar says, is "how big teams want to think, how deep an understanding they want to gain." This being NFL, of course, many teams will likely not understand scope or potential of new data or even bother to open the files. Therefore, DePodesta's unique skill set combined with avalanche of raw RFID data could immediately close gap on competitors (like Steelers) who use more antiquated scouting systems.
FOR A YEAR, with franchise in disarray, Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, his wife, Dee, and new executive VP of football operations Sashi Brown reached out to learn from successful sports organizations. Crash course for Haslam, among worst owners in sports, re: leadership, turnover, analytics. Case in point: Before 2014 draft, team commissioned $100,000 study on quarterback prospects. Data strongly recommended drafting Teddy Bridgewater with No. 22 pick. Haslam said to have dismissed analytics and drafted Johnny Manziel. Bridgewater now Pro Bowl QB. Manziel out of football. Team now on 25th starting QB since 1999.
Under Haslam, Browns are 19 -- 45 and have lost 18 of past 21 games. Since buying team in 2012, Haslam has fired three coaches, and Browns are on sixth general manager in past eight years. Last season owner publicly committed to long-term rebuilding plan with promise not to "blow things up." In January, fired coach Mike Pettine and GM Ray Farmer.
Upon meeting Haslam, DePodesta explained how most owners treat Moneyball approach like a child riding a roller coaster. Kids beg to ride, wait in line for 45 minutes, get to front of line, see giant first hill and say, "I'm not getting on that thing." DePodesta states owners often want disciplined, process-oriented plan. But when it comes time to make tough decision, they panic. DePodesta told Haslam, "There are gong to be parts of the roller coaster that are going to be scary, that are going to be uncomfortable, but hopefully at the end of the ride, when we get off, you're going to want to say, 'Let's do it again.'"
Consensus inside NFL: Browns will get worse, much worse, before they get better, and turnaround could require up to five years, or twice the time Haslam typically tolerates. "In the pros, five years might as well be forever," Harvard's Murphy states. AFC analytics staffer states DePodesta could have perfect front office season and Browns still lose 14 games in 2016.
HASLAM'S NEW COMMITMENT to Money(foot)-ball model evident in restructuring of Browns front office into Harvard West. DePodesta reports only to owner. Final say on 53-man roster now belongs to Sashi Brown, 39, fellow Harvard grad and Browns' former general counsel who worked on salary cap and player contracts. Brown, in turn, hired Harvard grad and former Colts pro scouting coordinator Andrew Berry, 28, to be Cleveland's VP of player personnel. Browns' top analytics mind, Ken Kovash, promoted to director of football research and player personnel. Fourth Harvard grad, Kevin Meers, is now team's head research analyst. In total, three of top four decision makers have no NFL scouting or roster-building experience. Cleveland brain trust now unlike anything else in football, which is exactly the point.
Fifth person in team's draft-day war room, coach Hue Jackson, is wild card. He favors gut, eye and instinct over data -- even to own detriment. Seemed out of loop at combine when he suggested analytics "not going to drive our organization." Hope is Jackson can bring balance and unique perspective to data-driven decision-making. Fear is he's "a very bad fit," according to former NFL exec. "It's not just Hue Jackson," same source states. "When data overrides gut, the majority of his coaching staff will all be there screaming, 'What the f--- are these computer guys doing? They don't understand football, they don't understand the locker room. They're killing us.'"
EARLY FIELD DATA
FREE AGENCY OFFERED glimpse into DePodesta "roller coaster" and Browns' new dispassionate, counterintuitive process. Leveraged deeply flawed, desperate Robert Griffin III into two-year deal with minimum ($6.75 million) guarantee. Move allows team to still draft Carson Wentz or Jared Goff in first round. Only now Browns can use Griffin during roster rebuild while protecting and developing rookie passer and future franchise QB. Should Griffin long shot pay off, Browns can lock him up at minimal salary cap hit.
In first 24 hours of free agency, team let four starters leave, including right tackle Mitchell Schwartz (to Kansas City) and Pro Bowl center and team's 2009 first-round pick Alex Mack (to Atlanta). Move left fans, media, NFL "experts" dumbfounded. Left analytics community impressed. Since 2011, teams that have spent least amount of guaranteed money in free agency -- Bengals (.656), Packers (.706), Steelers (.613) -- are among those with highest winning percentages. These teams, along with Ravens and Patriots, rebuild over long haul by stockpiling as many draft picks as possible, then supplement with free agents only when team is within striking distance of title. Accordingly, Browns now have 10 draft picks, tied for second most in league, including two in top 32. Ultimate test of Browns' commitment to new team-building conventions remains trading perennial All-Pro left tackle Joe Thomas, 31, if team gets anything close to first- and second-round picks that Broncos offered at 2015 trade deadline.
DEPODESTA DISPLAYS LEGITIMATE high-level, game-changing assets in otherwise staid NFL. Scores off the charts in mental makeup, creativity, vision, instincts, potential. Greatest variable remains whether Browns and owner Haslam can do something truly radical and stick to DePodesta plan for more than two years, especially if team initially struggles on field.
So far, DePodesta responding well to unique challenges of NFL. In February, attended first NFL combine. He reported overhearing NFL front office types trash-talking Browns. Synopsis: Browns so desperate, team turned to "baseball guy." Conversation, attitude reminiscent of famous scene from Moneyball movie involving similar grizzled, stubborn, get-off-my-lawn old-timers. Those scouts were eventually exposed, rendered obsolete, by DePodesta's analytics. "I said, 'All right, this is like 17 years ago in Oakland all over again,'" DePodesta says. "That's part of the fun."
High-character response consistent with overall exceptional NFL prospect. Early, elite levels of optimism not major concern. Those will quickly regress to mean in Cleveland.